WILL THE REAL SAINT VALENTINE PLEASE STAND UP?
Finding out about the origins of our holidays and celebrations can sometimes be a real buzz-kill. So often they turn out to be something different that we’ve always believed or been taught.
Still, it doesn’t hurt to be informed, and that doesn’t need to spoil the holiday for you. I find that in ways adults are just like children: If they want to believe something, they believe it, no matter what you tell them or how convincing your proof is.
So just keep on believing that Valentine’s Day is all about romance, love, and fealty.
In the ancient Greek calendar, mid-January to mid-February was the month of Gamelion, dedicated to the sacred marriage of the god Zeus and the goddess Hera. That appears to be the earliest link to February festivals.
Yup. We’re back to the Romans again. Lupercalia, an archaic rite connected to fertility and local to the city of Rome, was celebrated February 13 thru 15. The more general Roman celebration was called Juno Februa (“Juno the Purifier” or “The Chaste Juno”), February 13 and 14.
It appears that the purpose of the festival and the rituals are a bit obscured by time, but one historian describes the rite in the following manner:
“Celebrated at the ides of February, or February 15, Lupercalia was a fertility festival dedicated to Faunus, the Roman god of agriculture, as well as to the Roman founders Romulus and Remus.
To begin the festival, members of the Luperci, an order of Roman priests, would gather at a sacred cave where the infants Romulus and Remus, the founders of Rome, were believed to have been cared for by a she-wolf or lupa. The priests would sacrifice a goat, for fertility, and a dog, for purification. They would then strip the goat’s hide into strips, dip them into the sacrificial blood and take to the streets, gently slapping both women and crop fields with the goat hide.
Far from being fearful, Roman women welcomed the touch of the hides because it was believed to make them more fertile in the coming year. Later in the day, according to legend, all the young women in the city would place their names in a big urn. The city’s bachelors would each choose a name and become paired for the year with his chosen woman. These matches often ended in marriage.”
Some historians, including Noel Lenski, University of Colorado at Boulder, depict the rites as a bit more brutal than “gently slapping” and indicate the pairing was only for the duration of the festival, not a year, although sometimes the couplings lasted for longer. I guess this is where the idea of “love” and “romance” comes from.
Although the festival survived the rise of Christianity, around the end of the fifth century Pope Gelasius I determined to put an end to this eight-hundred-year-old practice of Lupercalia. The Roman Catholic fathers eventually found a likely candidate to replace the pagan deities, a priest who had been martyred on February 14, 269 A.D. The Pope outlawed Lupercalia as “unchristian” and replaced it with a celebration honoring the martyr St. Valentine.
Combining Lupercalia with St. Valentine’s Day apparently toned down the pagan festival, but Lenski adds, “It was a little more of a drunken revel, but the Christians put clothes back on it. That didn’t stop it from being a day of fertility and love.”
Who was St. Valentine?
Good question. That’s not too clear, either, but historians agree there was nothing romantic in any of the histories of the three early Christian martyrs (recognized saints) named Valentine (Valentinus). To complicate things, two of the Saint Valentines were executed on February 14 but in different years of the third century.
● Valentine of Rome (Valentinus presb. m. Romae) was a priest in Rome who was martyred about AD 269 and was buried on the Via Flaminia. His relics are at the Church of Saint Praxed in Rome, and at Whitefriar Street Carmelit Church in Dublin, Ireland. Not much else about him is documented, and what we know for sure isn’t very romantic.
The legend, however, spices it up, telling us that when Emperor Claudius II decided that single men made better soldiers than those with wives and families and, therefore, outlawed marriage for young men. Valentine defied the Emperor’s decree and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret. When this was discovered, he was put to death on February 14, 269 (Some sources say the year 270 or 273 A.D.).
Some references indicate that Valentine’s cause to unite lovers with holy vows of matrimony landed him in prison, which is likely to be true. During his incarceration, he struck up a friendship with the blind daughter of his jailer, Asterius. (In one version of the legend, he miraculously restored her sight). Supposedly, they exchanged love letters and on the day of his execution (February 14th, 269 A.D.), he left a final letter for his love and signed it “From your Valentine.”
Still another variation recounts that Claudius took a liking to this prisoner – until Valentinus tried to convert the Emperor to Christianity – whereupon he condemned the priest to death. Valentine was beaten with clubs and stoned. When that failed to kill him, he was beheaded outside the Flaminian Gate.
He is also buried on the Via Flaminia, but in a different location than Valentine of Rome. His relics are at the Basilica of Saint Valentine in Terni. There doesn’t seem to be much more known about him.
● A third saint named Valentine is mentioned in the Catholic Encyclopedia, also executed on the date of February 14. He was martyred in Africa, along with companions, but nothing else is known about him, either.
When did February 14 become associated with romance and love?
Again, the real history is fuzzy. After Pope Gelasius I did away with Lupercalia, young Roman men instituted the custom of offering greetings of affection to the women they wanted court on February 14. These cards soon acquired St. Valentine’s name.
By the Middles Ages, Christianity and the Saint Valentine legends had spread throughout Europe. Valentine was revered as one of the most popular Saints in England and France. It appears that the first written reference to Valentine’s Day in the romantic sense, is a poem in Parlement of Foules (1382) by Geoffrey Chaucer, to honor the engagement of King Richard II to Anne of Bohemia.
“For this was on seynt Volantynys day
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.”
["For this was Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate."]
The treaty providing for the marriage was signed May 2, 1381, and Richard and Anne were married eight months later. (Both of them were only fifteen at the time). While many assumed Chaucer meant February 14 in his reference to Valentine’s Day, in fact, in the liturgical calendar, May 2 is the saint’s day for St. Valentine, the bishop of Genoa who died around 307 A.D. Not too many birds mate in February.
On February 14, 1400, Paris established a “High Court of Love” which addressed love contracts, betrayals, and violence against women. I only found one reference to this and couldn’t find out more about it or its significance.
The earliest surviving valentine card, as we know it, was written in 1415 by Charles, Duke of Orleans to his wife. It now resides in the British Library in London.
Je suis desja d’amour tanné
Ma tres doulce Valentinée…
—Charles d’Orléans, Rondeau VI, lines 1–2
Not many years later, King Henry V hired writer John Lydgate to compose a valentine note to Catherine of Valois.
Shakespeare mentions Valentine’s Day in Hamlet (1600-1601).
In the sixteenth century, the Bishop of Geneva, St. Francis de Sales, tried to get rid of the custom of Valentine’s Day cards and failed. Their popularity grew and they became decorated with naked Cupids armed with arrows dipped in love potion.
In North America, people began exchanging hand-made valentines in the early 1700s, and in 1840, artist Esther A. Howland, known as the Mother of the Valentine, began selling the first mass-produced valentines in the United States.
And the rest is history. Well, actually, it’s all history.
Stop by and see Ann at her blog!